AroAce April | An interview with Grace Varley…

This month I’ve been celebrating ace and/or aro-spec writers on Jessticulates with AroAce April!

Today I’m delighted to be joined by the always enthusiastic and unfailingly friendly Grace Varley, an aroace writer I came across on Twitter who’s a wonderful advocate for ace and aro voices within the queer community. She’s also a sensitivity reader for asexual and aromantic stories! If you’re a writer looking for a sensitivity reader for the aro and/or ace rep in your work, head to Grace’s website here for more info.

Read on for our chat about misconceptions of aroace identities, how online roleplaying can help us discover our own sexuality, and which myths would suit an aroace retelling!

Welcome to Jessticulates, Grace, and thanks so much for taking part in AroAce April! Please introduce yourself:

Hi Jess! Thank you for asking me to be involved in AroAce April, I think this is such a wonderful project you’re undertaking. As for me, I’m Grace, I’m a soon-to-be 29 year old from the UK. As of the 1st of April I am currently unemployed, having left my job to spend six months focusing on my writing! I have two degrees in Creative and Professional Writing and I would say my writing brand is both a generous helping of badass a-spec characters and hot dads.

Can you remember the first time you came across the terms aromantic and asexual? If so, how did they make you feel?

I was on Tumblr when the terms “asexual” and “aromantic” were first starting to get popular online. I respected those terms and I think had a little tug toward them, but completely ignored it. At the time, I was a teenager, and I think deep down knew that I wasn’t “like everyone else”, but chalked that up to being more interested in hanging out with my friends, and going to an all girls’ school, than being aro and ace. During sixth form when a lot of my friends were getting boyfriends, I started to really believe there was something wrong with me; I just assumed I was unattractive and no one wanted to date me!

Ironically, I roleplayed online for about 10-12 years, during which I would create characters, more often than not, who were ace-spec or aro-spec. I loved playing those characters and their identities made sense to me (it was a little self-insertion, now I look back on it). It wasn’t until talking about it with my best friend Alex (who has also been incredibly supportive of my aroace journey) that she started to nudge me: “this sounds like you, I think this might be you.” I fought against it for a little while. I’m not queer. I’m not part of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. I don’t want to take up space. I wasn’t ashamed, I have queer friends, I am a queer ally, but for me? That just didn’t feel like a place I deserved to be.

It wasn’t until mid-2020 that I properly started using the terms for myself. I don’t want to spoil my answer to another question, but after reading a certain book (through which most of it I was in tears), the term “aroace” hit me like a freight train and I crossed that threshold from “I don’t want to take up space that isn’t mine” to “heck yeah, ace/aro people are the best, and I’m one of them”!

I think anyone who roams through the writing side of Twitter will know you as a huge advocate for aro and ace rep in fiction! When did you first start writing your own fiction, and have you always included aro and ace characters in your work?

That’s very sweet of you to say! Sometimes I do worry I get on my soapbox a bit too much, but hearing positive feedback from people in terms of my tweets and posts has been really, really affirming.

As for your question, I guess I can say yes and no. As I mentioned before, I would write ace and aro-spec characters when I roleplayed, but more often than not when I was character building for novels, the characters would end up in a romantic relationship. I have stood up on my soapbox far too often about this on Twitter, but I think the insistence that pieces of media, especially novels, must have a romantic relationship to make the book marketable is a bunch of baloney, and incredibly harmful to authors and readers. I would never make someone feel bad if romance is the genre they enjoy and am a big advocate for both healthy romance stories (especially LGBTQIA+ ones) and healthy stories including sex, but as with everything, there needs to be a wider array of stories. That includes stories without romance… and not just middle grade stories, because they don’t tend to have romance anyway.

For the longest time I assumed I had to have some kind of epic love story for my main characters and side characters otherwise no one would want to read my work. Not, for a second, realising that I also wouldn’t want to read a book like that. I skipped most of YA when I was a teenager because I’d DNF after the main character couldn’t stop mooning over their boyfriend(s), so why did I think I’d want to spend all that time with characters of my own… mooning over their boyfriend(s)?

(There are plenty of YA books that don’t do this, or that handle romance really well, they just weren’t what I was reading at the time… I think y’all know exactly the kind of books I’m talking about!)

I’ve been writing on and off since I was a child, but only really, properly, put pen to paper around 2017-2018. In this novel, my character was aroace, and it fit like a glove. It was YA dystopian, there was a female main character, and a male main character, and he was going to fall in love with her, eventually profess his love… and she was going to tell him “I’m really sorry, but I don’t feel that way about you, or anyone”. I’ve continued with that trend of adding aro and ace POV characters to almost all of my novels, whether it’s explicit or there’s just no romance. At the end of the day: you have to write what you want to read, and I’m desperate to read books like that!

What are your favourite genres to write in?

I’ve always been a huge fantasy fan. I love the sprawling worlds, the deep and interesting characters and the almost endless amount of sub-genres within fantasy, too! Nearly all of the WIPs I’ve written have been fantasy, with a couple of exceptions. The YA dystopian novel I mentioned, which I would love to go back to someday—even though I know YA dystopia isn’t a particularly marketable genre at the moment —and a pseudo-historical retelling I’m currently in the process of drafting.

And, yes, there will be some ace-spec and aro-spec characters in that, too!

Do you think there are any genres in particular that are more welcoming to aro and ace voices than others?

That’s an interesting question. I would say that I think there are probably more aro-spec and ace-spec characters in fantasy, but I know that there’s also some great ones in contemporary fiction as well. Most of the ace-spec and aro-spec characters and authors I’ve seen write a sub-genre of fantasy, so I think, to me, that’s probably the most welcoming of genres for our voices. I think, in general, fantasy is one of the more diverse genres (as well as contemporary), but it still has a long way to go. Often, when one thinks of a book with a diverse cast, they will struggle to name a character that’s ace-spec or aro-spec, and that’s a little telling.

What’s one misconception about aromanticism and/or asexuality that you would like to change?

I sat down this morning to answer these questions and found myself experiencing aroace joy here whilst also seeing some horrific aphobia on Twitter. The dichotomy of the a-spec experience, am I right? I think this person’s (very bad) opinion really highlights one of the misconceptions about asexuality, but I think it also applies to aromanticism, that really grinds my gears: “But, everyone feels like that!”

No! No, they really don’t! Wherever you fall on the a-spec orientation, not everyone feels like that! I am a sex and romance repulsed aroace and I can tell you for a fact that not everyone is like me (even within the a-spec community!); to the point that I thought I was broken for many years until I did proper research into asexuality and aromanticism. I don’t think “everyone”’s fight or flight response kicks in so hard that they want to jump out of a moving vehicle like an action hero because someone tells them “my friend really liked you, he said he’d like to go out with you”!

It’s something that really sticks in my craw and, in this person’s case, half the time it comes from within the queer community. I don’t want to get too into it, because this is also something that I want to explore in my current novel, but there are certain members of the LGBTQIA+ community that think that by including a-spec identities, we’re somehow belittling, or desecrating their existence, and the whole world. Ho, boy, I wish I had that kind of power, but alas, I am but a human being who doesn’t wanna have sex or enter into romantic relationships; if I was really a world-ender, do you think I’d be sitting around writing my little a-spec books and desperately trying to get you to acknowledge my identities? No! I’d be destroying buildings with my laser vision and becoming the new supreme overlord! And, getting Oscar Isaac in a three-piece suit to serve me bowls of spaghetti on a daily basis.

A publisher approaches you with a six-figure deal for a myth retelling with an aroace protagonist. Which myth would you retell?

I won’t answer with “well I’m actually writing a historical retelling with an aroace protagonist” because that would be boring! This was a hard question to think about and really narrow down a good answer.

However, I think an Orpheus and Eurydice aroace retelling would also be really, really fun to write. Having them in a QPR instead of romantically involved, and showcasing just how strong a platonic bond can be, with Orpheus venturing into the Underworld to rescue his platonic soulmate. You could really play around with the concept of romantic love vs. platonic love (and the skewed lines in between) with a retelling like that.

Damn… maybe I’ll just jot that one down in my ideas Google Doc!

What are you working on at the moment?

Perfect for this AroAce April, for Camp NaNo (and for the foreseeable future) I’m working on #AceDefective, also known as The Children of Aristo, a second world, multi-POV YA fantasy novel with a huge ace-spec and aro-spec cast. I wrote a YA fantasy short story for an ace-spec anthology that, sadly, I wasn’t accepted into, but writing that story about a couple of main characters that were the only people not affected by the luring song of a siren-esque creature was something that drilled itself into my brain. A bunch of lovely ace friends of mine read that short story and really loved the central theme as well, so I’d been trying to find the right vehicle for it ever since. In strolls #AceDefective.

All three POVs are ace in different ways, plus there is an all ace-spec fantasy heist, which I’m very excited about. It has disabled aces, aces in relationships, aces of colour, and portrays asexuality as kind of a really awesome superpower. #AceDefective looks at how harmful aphobia is and how some people just don’t understand it. It’s also discussing how harmful purity culture is, and how it not only harms allosexuals, but asexuals, too.

“Sylva is an aroace mercenary who flies ships safely through the deadly Siren Swarm. She’s not affected by the sirens’ luring call and many call her a monster for it. When she’s falsely arrested for murder she’s given a choice: gather together an all ace crew and steal the Siren Mother’s heart, thus saving the planet from these evil creatures, or accept the manufactured accusations and rot in jail forever.”

As a side project I’m also working on a pseudo-historical retelling that I’m somewhat keeping under my hat plot-wise, but it also has an aroace main character. I’m angling for it ending in a poly-QPR, which I’ve not seen portrayed much, and I think is going to be really fun to explore!

What are some of your favourite books with aro and/or ace rep?

I didn’t want to mention this book in a previous question because I wanted to gush about it here… but Loveless. I know that it has its faults, I’ve talked extensively with ace-spec and aro-spec friends about the book and I think a lot of what they have to say is correct and extremely valid. Loveless by Alice Oseman is not going to be the book for every aroace person in the world, which is more than okay (and highlights why we need more portrayals of other kinds of ace and aro identities), but it was that book for me. I saw myself in that novel for the first time and it gave me the courage to put “aroace” in my bio on Twitter. It was the first time I’d seen not only a character who was aroace (or ace, or aro), but a whole book about their experiences with those two identities? It blew my little brain right out of the water.

Another fantastic piece of writing with ace and aro rep is The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (please check the list of trigger warnings before reading). It’s a novella, but it packs such an emotional and gutting punch, while leaving you incredibly satisfied by the end. Marc is also a really nice person and an incredibly talented writer (go follow them on Twitter!), which is always the icing on the cake when it comes to supporting an author. I’m mildly obsessed with mythology and folklore around the Wild Hunt, so this was the perfect merging of my two favourite things; badass aroace characters and fantastical stories of people on horses riding through the night and killing folk. The story has incredible nonbinary and SA rep as well.

An extra huge shout out to Aces Wild by Amanda DeWitt, which is coming out September 6th 2022, and I am rolling around on the floor excited for it. A novel with a huge ace-spec teen cast and a Las Vegas heist? Sign me up right now! In fact, #AceDefective can comp to this story, so I’m extra thrilled for it. I haven’t stopped screaming about it on Twitter since it was announced; I think Amanda’s probably sick of me in her mentions by now!

As a personal mention, though not canonically aroace, I have to give an honourable shoutout to Viktor from the Netflix series Arcane because he is the most aroace coded character I have ever seen in my life, and thus has become a staple archetype of character to insert into my novels.

Thank you so much for taking part in AroAce April, Grace! If you’d like to follow what Grace is working on, be sure to follow her on Twitter.

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